Heatwave shuts down dog sled tours early on a glacier near Skagway

The Icefield Expeditions camp on Denver Glacier. (Photo by Claire Stremple/KHNS)

Record-breaking temperatures are searing the globe. One spot where the evidence of that heatwave is especially apparent is on a glacier near Skagway. Icefield Expeditions operates a sled dog tour on Denver Glacier above the city. Their hopes for a full season melted in the heat wave ⁠— the snow was gone before August. But they’re not giving up, just moving to a new glacier.

About 6,000 feet above Skagway, hundreds of sled dogs spend the summer taking tourists for rides. The camp looks improbable perched on a high glacier, nestled between jagged peaks. Rows of dog houses and tents form a tiny spot on the blank landscape.

Icefield Expeditions has been running tours since 1999. They fly tourists up to remote glacier camps by helicopter and take them for a spin with professional sled dog teams.

It’s a way for elite dogs from around the country to stay active in the offseason⁠—the part of the year when they’re not racing the Iditarod or the Yukon Quest.

Dogs resting between sled tours. (Photo by Claire Stremple/KHNS)

“It’s kind of like low grade weightlifting,” said musher Matt Hayashida, the general manager for Icefield Expeditions. “Even though these are all ultra-marathon racing dogs, it helps benefit them and prevents injury later on in the racing season.”

It’s also a way for mushers to stay employed. Hayashida has been with the company since the beginning. He was a young musher fresh off his first few Iditarods when he signed on with Icefield Expeditions for the off-season and spent his summers on the glacier to fund his race kennel.

“What better way than to promote the sport, still have the dogs get exercise,  make some money to help feed the dogs throughout the wintertime, too?” Hayashida asked.

But even though summer tourism is still in full swing, the camp on the Denver Glacier is gone for the year. The season closed early because there wasn’t enough snow to run the tours safely.

A musher gets some love from sled dogs in training. (Photo by Claire Stremple/KHNS)

“Precipitation and snow pack conditions across Southeast Alaska has been below normal,” said Aaron Jacobs, Senior Hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Juneau. He says regionally the snow pack is less than half of normal.

“But the bigger thing, I think is the temperatures,” Jacobs said. “The trend over the last 10, 20 years is that temperatures have been rising.”

Another piece of the puzzle locally is the pollen that swept through the Upper Lynn Canal this year. A lot of it blew up to the glacier. The dark matter of the pollen absorbs sunlight and it accelerated snow melt.

Much of Southeast Alaska is experiencing drought conditions this summer. For hydrologists like Jacobs, this weather is charting new territory. He was recently part of a conference with experts from across the nation to figure out how to talk about drought in Alaska. Indicators that work in the Lower 48 don’t apply to temperate rain forests.

“So this is pretty historical. At this time, it doesn’t seem like we’re having much relief,” Jacobs said.

That means businesses that depend on snow have to adapt to survive. Icefield Expeditions is doing just that.

“We just move way farther up in elevation,” Hayashida said.

He has seen low snow years before, but nothing like this. This year, conditions pushed the camp off the Denver glacier altogether. The season that usually runs through September ended in July. But the company also runs tours on the Mendenhall Glacier above Juneau.

They had to scout new, even higher altitude terrain on the Mendenhall Glacier. It was flat enough to set up camp and run tours, so they moved 240 dogs and 60,000 pounds of equipment from the Denver Glacier above Skagway to camp on the Mendenhall Glacier.

Hayashida says the company is likely to operate there until September.

It’s riskier to be farther up. Conditions can change at any time, potentially cancelling tours. But the team knows their stuff, and they’re happy to be running at all.

So to ride with the dogs this summer, it’s the Mendenhall Glacier or nothing. Luckily, it’s been good weather for flying.

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